Infrastructure, Builders and Districts
Where Civilization V shook up the military system with its new hex grid and one-unit-per-tile rules, Civilization VI’s biggest changes focus on your empire’s infrastructure. Of all the changes, the idea of ‘unstacking the cities’ is the largest, but alongside it are changes to workers, tile improvements, trade routes, city connections, happiness and city growth. This is massive overhaul to some pretty core concepts of the Civilization series and the impact it has is noticeable.
The new district system means that city infrastructure takes longer to come online, and is far more specialized in Civilization VI. Cities don’t build directly in the city center any more, but instead build districts on the map and then build relevant buildings within them. Each district gets a bonus based on where you place it, so that cities next to rivers like to have commercial districts, while cities near rainforest will benefit from their research potential with a campus district.
Housing is also a concern for cities now, severely limiting growth as you approach the housing cap. Cities gain housing from certain districts, buildings and tile improvements, but in the early game housing mostly comes from fresh water, so you’ll want to settle near rivers, lakes or oases.
Finally, workers see an overhaul which gives them limited uses, and renames them as ‘Builders’. Each builder has a limited number of uses to build tile improvements, after which they disappear and you’ll need to create a new one. Improving tiles around your cities therefore requires constant support in the form of producing new builders, and so you need to figure out which are the most important improvements and build those first.
All this means that city placement is much more important now than it was in Civilization V. Going into the game for the first time, you can’t use the same criteria for city placement that you’re used to. You need to consider whether there’s fresh water nearby, as well as what districts and tile improvements your new city will benefit from. The maps are slightly larger than they were in Civilization V, and getting used to the new distances you can put between cities will also take some time.
With all this going on, it can feel like building your empire up is a bit of a slog, especially when you reach a stage where you need more builders, or more housing, and feel like your city isn’t producing anything worthwhile. The late game sees a bit of a boom, once most of your core cities have come online and you can create large amounts of extra housing. The pacing of the game has certainly seen a major shift though, and you shouldn’t expect to see your civilization booming as early as you’re used to.
Technology, Culture and Governments
If you loved the social policy system of Civilization V, you’ll be sad to see it go in this game. Instead, culture now progresses you along a ‘civics’ tree, which is essentially a secondary technology tree for more societal concepts. Progressing along this tree unlocks new abilities and government forms, for a more fluid system of rulership.
The really major change in Civilization VI, though, are the ‘eurekas’ and ‘inspirations’, which give you a boost to specific technologies or civics respectively when you meet their pre-requisites. In the early game, these boosts are almost a certainty (e.g. meet another civilization), while later on they become more difficult to achieve. The idea is that they help you progress faster along lines that you’re already on, so that if you’re using a lot of spearmen, you get a boost to researching pikemen, while using a lot of galleys will give you boosts to unlocking caravels.
The result is that technological progression is incredibly fast, especially compared to the snail’s pace of city development. The boosts make progression through the eras much quicker than in Civilization V, since progressing in either of the two trees can boost you into a new era. Since entering a new era brings new bonuses, such as faster roads and better city defenses, you can find yourself snowballing very quickly through either tech or culture, even if you forsake the other.
This speed makes the slow build of infrastructure feel even slower. It was common that I would start building a district in a relatively new city, and have progressed through an era or two before it was even finished. Progressing to the Industrial era just after finishing my first Campus district felt incredibly wonky, as did researching Flight while I was still working on building a Library.
This feels more like a problem with some numbers that need to be balanced, but either way, the dual-tree system lends itself to some odd beelines through history, so you should be prepared for rapid progression through time in some form or another.
Combat and Terrain
If someone were to ask me what the most annoying change to Civilization VI was, I’d definitely say the new terrain and movement system. Under the new rules, terrain now requires that you pay the entire movement cost of a tile to enter it, so you can’t move onto a hill with less than 2 movement left, for example.
Again, this slows down the game. Where before you would be able to move through a valley from one hill to the next, now you’ll have to wait an extra turn to do so. Combined with the larger overall map size, getting from A to B now takes significantly longer. More importantly, standing on a hill, in a forest or across a river makes you much harder to attack, since most units will have to already be standing next to you to do so.
New rules have also been brought in which affect Zone of Control (ZoC), the area around each unit which prevents enemies from walking past you. In Civilization V, units moving from one ZoC to another would immediately lose all movement, but moving into or out of ZoC didn’t do anything by itself.
Now, when you move into an enemy’s Zone of Control, you must either attack that enemy or end your movement, so you can no longer move into and then out of ZoC at will. However, what this does mean is that you can move around a unit, from one ZoC to another, and then still attack it afterwards, allowing you to shimmy around units while fighting. This also makes ranged units harder to defend, since you can slip past melee units into an archer’s ZoC and attack them from there. Meanwhile, ZoC doesn’t pass across rivers, and ranged units don’t naturally exert ZoC either, making them very easy to move around when necessary.
All this means that positioning is much more important than before. Being in difficult terrain makes you more difficult to attack from a distance, and Zone of Control makes moving around or near enemy units more fiddly. You’ll want to pay much more attention to how your formation and position affects enemy movement, to make sure that your weaker units aren’t taking easy hits from flankers. Actually getting into combat, however, is an arduous task thanks to the new terrain rules, and makes adopting an advantageous position more difficult to accomplish.
Cities are also significantly weaker than they were in Civilization V, so that a small army is now capable of taking out a city, especially in the early eras. Walls add a second ‘defense’ HP value, which is extremely resistant to melee. Without walls, cities are extremely susceptible to melee attacks, while cities with walls will require siege engines to take down. Cities no longer feel invincible, and city defenses feel worth building, especially on the borders.
The new positioning rules make combat feel much more tactical, and weaker cities makes wars less arduous. Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of tech progression compared to unit build time and movement, it feels like there’s never much time for war. By the time you’ve built your pikes and moved them into position, your opponent might already have upgraded from swords to guns.
Diplomacy, Rumors and Agendas
Diplomacy feels like a step backwards from where it was at the end of Civilization V. It’s always a difficult balance to strike between an AI that is constantly hostile and an AI that is overly affectionate, and Civilization VI nearly manages it. Unfortunately, it falls back on the side of a slightly overly hostile AI, with too few positive modifiers to ever make friends. However, there were only a limited number of leaders in this build, so it may be a specific personality problem more than a game issue.
The major change in Civilization VI is the introduction of agendas for each AI. More than just determining each AI’s flavor, such as militaristic, scientific etc., each leader has specific accomplishments they like to see in other civilizations. Harald Hardrada of Norway likes leaders with strong navies, for example, and dislikes civilizations with weak navies, making him more likely to attack them. Each leader has 2 agendas, one based on the leader, and one randomized at the start of each game.
This makes leaders more predictable, but in some cases more prone to random and sudden outbursts of vitriol. Although meeting their agendas should be relatively easy, in practice it seems that not meeting it has a much more immediate and strong effect, so that relations can be hard to maintain. When the AI starts disliking you it becomes difficult to climb out of the downward spiral, with too few positive modifiers and too many negative ones. Most of the time I found it was easier to just ignore the AI than try to create positive relationships with them, since a single misstep would immediately undo my hard work.
On one occasion, I founded a religion. Kongo immediately denounced me for not spreading it to him yet (his agenda trigger). Next turn he denounced me, and two turns later he declared war. Conversely, I’ve never had a Declaration of Friendship with an AI, even while meeting their agenda positively. Like early Civilization V, the AI is easy to upset and difficult to please, a problem that was fixed in later Civilization V updates. I expect the same will be true here.
Even with a hostile AI, however, war seems like it will be a rarity, thanks to the new Casus Belli system. Casus Bellis are reasons to declare war, unlocked through the culture tree, and which lower your warmonger penalty. For example, you might declare a religious war on someone who insists on converting your cities, or a reconquest war on someone who took your city earlier in the game. As the eras progress, your diplomatic penalties for declaring war without a Casus Belli become more severe, so that you need to use them if you don’t want other players to hate you.
Since the eras progress so quickly, the warmonger penalties quickly get out of hand, making it difficult to get a decent army together for an invasion before the penalties become too harsh. Most of the Casus Bellis, on the other hand, offer such specific and narrow options for warfare that you’ll rarely come across an opportunity to use them. Combined, this makes both the player and the AI reluctant to go to war, and you’re likely to see far less combat than in Civilization V, a game almost entirely focused on warfare.
In general, I found that I was surrounded by AI that hated me, but that was generally unwilling to declare war. Sadly, this tends to lead to a feeling that diplomacy is best ignored, since there’s no threat of being invaded, nor any hope of making friends.
Religion, Combat and Victory
Religion being in the base game allows Civilization VI to integrate the mechanics in a way which Civilization V didn’t, which is a welcome change. Two major additions come to Civilization VI religion: Religious Combat and Religious Victory.
Religious combat is an excellent idea. Rather than having to suffer wave after wave of missionaries from religious zealots, you can now fight them without having to declare war on their owner. There are 3 religious units available in Civilization VI: the Missionary, the Apostle and the Inquisitor. Missionaries perform the same basic role as in Civ V, spreading religion to nearby cities. Inquisitors still have the ability to remove foreign religions from your cities, but can also attack foreign religious units in religious combat. Apostles can spread religion, attack foreign religious units, and are much stronger than both missionaries and inquisitors.
This adds some much-needed interaction with the religious system. Unfortunately, it all feels very basic as well. There are only a few units, which don’t upgrade, and very few bonuses to combat, so most religious battles simply come down to whoever has more apostles. It’s much like if Civilization only had Warriors and Swordsmen to use during warfare. The interaction is enjoyable, but sometimes it feels like there’s very little strategy to the system.
Meanwhile, the religious victory condition feels like a direct replacement for the diplomatic victory from Civilization V: too easy, too early and too difficult to contest. Religious victory is achieved once a civilization’s religion is the primary religion for all players, meaning that it is the main religion in half of their cities. There’s no need to wait for a late game technology or civic to win, so religious victory comes early, and with good faith generation very easily.
Religious combat has a snowball effect which makes religious victory even easier. When a religious unit destroys an enemy, all nearby cities suffer a wave of conversion, akin to spreading religion in all of them simultaneously. Converting multiple cities at a time can prevent a rival from creating more inquisitors or apostles of their own religion, and leaves you unopposed. Religion spreads like wildfire, and can very quickly take over if you’re not keeping an eye on it. Perhaps the main problem is the AI’s passivity in the face of religious victory, or perhaps religion requires some rebalancing, but expect plenty of games to end incredibly quickly if one player manages to gain an early upper hand in the religion game.
Minor Major Changes: Great People and City States
The two other major changes in Civilization VI are the new Great People system, and the changes to City States. Although they don’t fit in any of the broader categories, they certainly make a huge difference to gameplay.
Great People points generation is similar to Civilization V, with certain buildings giving you Great People points over time. Mostly they come from relevant districts and their buildings. The major difference now is that your points are working towards a global pool of Great People, so rather than getting a Great Person at a certain threshold, everyone competes to reach the same threshold. If you’re the first one to reach it, you have the option to hire the Great Person, then everyone begins working towards the next one. In essence, this means that whenever a Great Person is born anywhere, everyone needs more points to get the next one.
The other aspect to this system is that each Great Person is unique, with unique abilities. One Great Scientist might give you two random eurekas, for instance, while another will simply give you a huge boost to science, and another will improve your universities. Competing for specific Great People therefore becomes more important. Since you can also spend faith or gold to get a Great Person early, you can sometimes snipe one that’s important to your strategy even if you don’t have the points advantage over another player. Alternatively, if you have the points but don’t want the Great Person, you can choose to pass on them and wait until the next one comes around to spend your points.
The preview build felt like it had a very limited pool of Great People, so it was difficult to tell exactly how this will pay off in the full version of the game. It felt like I saw the same few over and over again. Since most of the time I built similar districts in most cities, depending on my strategy, I also frequently saw one type of Great Person over and over again as well, with no look-in on the others. Overall, they seemed to come thick and fast, and be low impact when they did appear. It’s a shame for someone like me, who loved generating plenty of Great People in Civilization V.
City States are definitely much more interesting than in Civilization V, but suffered from being limited in the preview build. City States now require Envoys in order to attain their bonuses: at 1 envoy, you gain a bonus in your capital. At 3 envoys, you gain a bonus in relevant districts (all commercial districts for a commercial city state, for instance) and at 6 that same bonus increases. If you have more envoys with a City State than any other Civilization, then they also provide you with a bonus unique to that City State. I can see games taking very different turns based on what bonus your City State ally can give you, but since there was a severely limited pool in the preview build, I didn’t get to experience this so much.
The main flaw with City States in Civilization VI is that that’s all there is to them. There’s no Diplomatic Victory anymore, or even a United Nations, so City States don’t give you votes for anything. Envoys are earned through influence, which increases over time based on your government level, and while there are Diplomatic policy slots that are supposed to pertain to helping your City State game, there’s not really many to choose from, and so I ended up using the same 1 or 2 all game, every game.
If you loved playing the City State game in Civ V, you may be disappointed by the lack of interaction in Civilization VI. The emptiness of the system and openness for expansion, however, encourages me that there will be updates to this in future.